View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Thursday, August 14, 2003

Slow Train to Nowhere

The Denver Post this morning bewails the imminent loss of national rail service in Denver. Evidently, the President has decided that if states want to have a tourist attraction snaking through their states, they should pay for it. So the whole article is about Amtrak's insolvency, and how unfair it is to ask the states to pick up the tab. How this will mean the end of rail travel as we know it.

Look, I love train travel. You get to see the world from a different perspective than you do from the interstates, or even the Blue Highways. When we took the SkiTrain to Winter Park a few years ago, we had a great time. When I travelled on the Canadian 15 years ago, I had a blast. (Funny, though, that even then half the conversations began with somewhat defensive discourses on the virtues of rail travel.) Plus, you can gut up and walk around. You can stop between cars and hang your head over the side. You can stop between cars and get a real rush when you pass a train going the other way. I understand why the hobos use trains.

But for most people, a day trip is about all they want. The old tourist rail lines like the the Georgetown Loop or the narrow guage Durango-Silverton all do a brisk business. But the trains are caught in the middle between efficiency and vacation. If you live in Chicago, and want to go to California for vacation, you may not want to spend the extra day just getting there. And if you see something interesting like Cadillacs stuck in the ground or a Kodak Photo Spot of the mountains, you can't just pull the cord and stop the train to enjoy the view. At least, not more than once.

If we want to understand that any train more than 50 miles from the coast is a tourist attraction, market it that way, and spend a little money to keep it alive, ok. $1B a year from a $1.5T budget might be worth it. But then we need to invest in rails, cars, better food, please better food, and XM radio for the cabins. And understand that it's still just a curiosity out here. That Union Station in DC may hustle and bustle with commuters, but Union Station on 17th Street is always going to be mostly empty.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is quoted: "Either we commit to dramatically improving rail for the entire country or we abandon the pretense of a national system." I think we've already made our choice. We're just waiting for the governments, state and federal, to catch up.

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